Summer is right around the corner, marking the end of another school year. But summer break this year has been disrupted for millions of children and positive alternatives to the streets may be lacking. Many children unable to return to school or full-time child care face long hot summer days ahead without enough to look forward to.
The struggle of many families has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Food pantries face long lines across our nation. As of March 2021, one in seven households with children reported they lacked enough to eat. Mercifully, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program has been extended through the summer months to help alleviate hunger for 30 million children.
More than half of all public school students — nearly 22 million — rely on free or reduced-price school meals for their daily nutritional needs. Times out of school — from snow days to spring break — can mean missed meals and empty stomachs. The wave of school closures paired with spikes in unemployment and food prices posed an even greater and longer threat to hungry children. In March 2020, Congress created the P-EBT program, providing money to replace free or reduced-price meals children would otherwise have received at school. The Biden administration and Congress have since made several important improvements.
In December, Congress expanded P-EBT to cover young children who lost access to meals through child care providers. Children younger than 6 enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and a child care facility that is closed, operating at reduced capacity or located near a school fully or partially closed can receive help. With many schools and child care centers still operating on a hybrid basis, Congress and the USDA loosened restrictions to ensure children receiving a mix of in-person and virtual instruction still get benefits on days they can’t access meals in-person. President Biden also used his executive authority to boost P-EBT benefits 15% for qualifying families to $6.82 per day.
Under the recent American Rescue Plan Act, Congress expanded P-EBT to cover summer months and to continue until our public health emergency ends, ensuring children will be fed until schools can fully and safely reopen.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of school meals to protect every child from hunger during the summer and beyond. Congress must establish a permanent out-of-school P-EBT program for children whenever school is closed. And we must expand our school lunch and breakfast programs to provide universal free school meals for all children after the COVID-19 crisis ends.
It should not take a global pandemic to implement these common-sense solutions to keep our children fed year-round.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of Children’s Defense Fund.